Russia seldom receives equal treatment in the retelling of history, from the Napoleonic Wars to the Great Patriotic War and the subsequent defeat of Hitler’s Germany.
Ever since the end of World War II in 1945, a Western bias has existed in the retelling of war events. Most general history texts barely mention Russia and the Eastern Front, other than to highlight, for example, the turning point battle of Stalingrad. Part of this bias is directly linked to the Cold War, which began very soon after the Potsdam Conference, and the Soviet Union was transformed into what Ronald Reagan would later call, the “Evil Empire.” Discounting the role of the Soviet Union in the victory over Hitler also had much to do with traditional views of Russia as a backward and foreign nation whose credentials as a “Western” power were scorned.
Western Historical Views of Russia
Historically, Russia was always distant and perceived as a cold, barren, and under-developed nation with pretensions to power. After Peter the Great modernized the military, Europe took greater notice but clung to the traditional beliefs that it could never be equal to the great states of the defined “West.” Even as World War I dawned, for example, the fear of the Russian “steamroller” forced the German General Staff to tinker with the Schlieffen Plan and deploy more divisions to the East. After decisive German victories, however, beginning early in the war at Tannenberg, the conventional views of Russia reemerged.
Russia and the War of 1812
After Tsar Alexander I abrogated the Treaty of Tilsit with Napoleon a prostrate Europe watched the mighty French army enter Russia. Napoleon had fought many battles in Western Europe and histories highlight Austerlitz, Jena, and Waterloo. Yet it was at Borodino, not far from Moscow, that the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic Wars took place. The Russians denied the French invaders supplies, burning their fields. Eventually, Napoleon, badly beaten, returned to Europe proper. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, according to historians, probably led to and hastened his downfall, yet this singular fact has become part of the Western Front bias.
The Soviet Union and the Great Patriotic War
Josef Stalin once said that “one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” After World War II, Soviet Russia, based on a 1959 census, reported a population deficiency of twenty million Russians. While it is estimated that six million Russians died at the hands of Stalin and his policies, the fact remains that Soviet Russia lost more people than any other belligerent nation.
Some of the most decisive battles of the war were fought in Russia. Stalingrad in 1942 has long been considered the turning point of the war, forcing German retreat. The largest tank battle ever fought took place at Kursk. At Leningrad, a thousand-day siege failed to conquer the city, even as the inhabitants were starving to death; one million died defending their city.
The Red Army “liberated” most of what would be referred to as “Eastern Europe.” Notwithstanding the horrors of Omaha Beach, the Battle of the Bulge, and Patton’s drive north through Italy, the Soviet Union did more to hasten the defeat of Hitler than the western allies. Yet all of this has become part of the Western Front bias, the indifferent retelling of events that favored the West in defeating a common enemy.
Selective Statistics Favor the Writers of History
Mark Twain wrote that there are, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Russia has always suffered from the bias of statistics, numbers and charts that manipulated the role of Western Powers in their favor. This has not changed. The 21st Century view of Russia remains unchanged from a traditional perception that excludes Russia as a European power. Both the Tsars and the Soviet leaders may have known this as they sought to build up their nation, on occasion over-compensating for the stigma of backwardness.